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Tuesday 27 May 2003

Trauma, Victim Culture, and Science

Last November, while commenting on the scandal surrounding the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, I discussed the motivations of various sexual-abuse ‘survivors’ groups. I said, in part:

Why is it so much worse to be diddled than to be struck? They’re both violations of the person, but while one bruise fades in short order, another bruises the soul and one can never, ever actually recover from it: only Survive and Go On Living, One Day At A Time bla bla bla. Happily, this Survival assures the long-term survival of the Recovery industry — members of which tend to be the people quoted in all those newspaper articles about how terrible the effects of x are, and how lots of therapy is needed.

I don’t deny that sexual abuse does harm to the victims; but it doesn’t do that much harm, nor is it all that common.

To which some illiterate jackass replied, in the comments:

this is the sickest thing ive ever read,the person who wrote this is obviosly the biggest ass in america, IF one thinks that a PRIEST sexually abusing a CHILD isnt “that bad” than they deserve to rott in hell. your a sick fuck

My refusal to buy into the orthodoxy that sexual abuse (or, indeed any kind of abuse, or any trauma at all) is somehow incredibly emotionally scarring makes me “sick”, and I deserve to “rott in hell”.

So I am particularly interested in a book review that appeared in The New Republic recently. Sally Satel reviews Richard J. McNally’s Remembering Trauma. I haven’t yet read the book, but Satel’s quotes and comments make it sound quite interesting, particularly as it touches on the subject of the way it has become totally unaccaptable to even question others’ claims of victimhood, even in the abstract:

[… We] must remember that just as campaigns against domestic violence, child abuse, and even the Vietnam war have advanced our understanding of victims, those same movements have at other times exploited and even manufactured victims for political ends.

This essentially political tension casts a large shadow over the field of traumatology. And when scientific data are perceived as clashing with efforts on behalf of victims, there have been ugly scenes. The cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has been vilified for publishing groundbreaking data on the malleability of memory. As a sought-after expert witness in repressed memory cases, she has been accused of sympathizing with child molesters. A few years ago the literary scholar Elaine Showalter received death threats for her book Hystories, a study of modern epidemics of hysteria such as multiple personality disorder. In July 1999, Congress unanimously passed House Resolution 107, which “condemns and denounces” three psychologists, Bruce Rind, Philip Tromovitch, and Robert Bauserman, for a “severely flawed” study, and the Senate then approved it unanimously. The psychologists’ offense was publishing an empirical paper in the prestigious journal Psychological Bulletin concluding that child sex abuse does not inevitably lead to lasting psychological harm. McNally presents new evidence showing that the psychologists’ conclusion?which was by no means an irresponsible reading of the data they examined?might not hold up, but he is fierce about protecting their scientific freedom.

Now McNally, too, risks excommunication from the Church of Traumatology, for the charge of blaming the victim. For he presents evidence showing that emotional breakdown after a tragedy is the exception, not the rule. It occurs because some individuals are simply more susceptible than others to developing psychiatric disorders following a crisis. This will not please the psychobabblers and the melodramatists and the daytime-television bookers; but McNally is unfazed. “Ultimately the best form of advocacy,” he writes, “is pursuing the truth about trauma wherever it may lead.”

Posted by tino at 12:08 27.05.03
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Again, Tino, you seem to be at the cutting edge of a contreversy that I’d rather keep at arm’s length, and again take my gut-feel position and explain it with coherence.

Obviously, the semi-literate moron who posted has some issues with the Church. (I’m curious why so many in Victimhood, Inc., seem to have issues with religion, but that’s probably a rant for my own blog, when I find the time to write about it.) Personally, I would like to know how much of the Church scandals was made up of the media selling both ideology (the Church is evil) and ad space.

Please note: I am not condoning the actions of those priests, nor am I saying the Church’s actions during and after the cover-up were proper, either. However, if the molesting priests (and wouldn’t that be a great name for a band?) constitue a similar percentage of the priest population that paedophiles constitute in the general population, the media’s “All priests fuck little boys!” alarmism needs to be re-thought.

Yet, most people aren’t going to take the time to make a statistical comparison. Who has the time or the resourcesto do so? The media! What do you think you’re going to hear from them? Not “Priest-paedophiles are in a similar proportion to paedophiles in the general population.” It doesn’t have the same paper/commercial-selling zing as “All priests fuck little boys!”

There is a reason I don’t deal with the news media any more, with very few exceptions. I’m sick to death of “Could X be a danger to your children!?!”

Posted by: Twonk at May 27, 2003 05:48 PM

I think that Victimhood, Inc. has such a problem with religion because Victimhood is the new religion.

My main point, though, is that the culture of trauma and victimhood actually is likely to make any situation worse.

Imagine we lived in a rational society. When a priest has been accused of diddling a child — something clearly forbidden — the charge would be investigated, and, if it were true, the priest would certainly be removed from situations that involve working with children, and he’d be subject to punishment. In the case of the Catholic Church, this punishment might be extra-legal, and frankly I don’t see why a devout Catholic should have any trouble with the Church, as opposed to the State, punishing the culprit.

In either case, the problem would be taken care of, much as a charge of a priest slugging a child would be.

But when sexual abuse is blown up into this enormous offense — I’ve seen some statements from the Victimhood industry that it’s worse than murder — there’s enormous incentive to cover things up. There’s also an incentive for prosecutors and civil attorneys to persue even the flimsiest cases, because the resulting publicity and liability awards can be so large.

So, ironically enough, if we just said that child molestation is a very bad thing that should never be done — on the order of aggravated assault — we would probably take more child molesters out of circulation than we do under our current draconian system.

There are those who advocate the death penalty for child molesters. I wonder whether it has occurred to those people that the child molester would then have no criminal-justice-system incentive not to simply kill any child he’s molested, thus eliminating the witness to the molestation crime while exposing himself to no more punishment should he be caught anyway.

Posted by: Tino at May 27, 2003 10:22 PM

molesting priests (and wouldn’t that be a great name for a band?

Yes, but not as good as “daddy’s soul donut”…but I call dibs on that one. ;)

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